Time for an Update

38665081_10107735075768052_8311195960428462080_nI’ve been away from the blog for a couple months, so I’ve decided to give an update on what I’m doing. As previously noted, I am currently on a medical leave of absence from school. I’ll still be working on projects during that time. I’m presenting at the national Society of Biblical Literature this month, and I will likewise be presenting at the Society for Classical Studies in January. Apart from that, I have a chapter in the works for a new John Loftus volume.

But, recently I have been heavily focused on improving my health, while thinking about the direction I want to take my career. I’m not going to lie, over the years managing this blog has often tired me out. There is a lot of antagonism within the field of Biblical Studies. It provides an interesting contrast with the field of Classical Studies, where there tends to be less controversy and intensity between different viewpoints. I feel that focusing too much on the debating and critiquing side of scholarship has sometimes sapped my creative energy.

I am still unequivocally opposed to the way organized religion has penetrated academia. I have no problem with Christian scholars working on the subject of ancient history, but I don’t think there should be accredited academic institutions (with doctrinal statements) designed to favor one particular religion (or atheism, for that matter). It fundamentally differs from what I view as the proper role of a university, and I hope to be active in addressing that throughout my career.

But, there is also a bigger world out there, and I want to feel free to explore it. There is so much acrimony (on both sides) in online discourse about the historical Jesus, the Bible, etc. I realize that this is due to the wider controversy and polarization of thought that surrounds these matters, but it can also be very tiring. When I started out studying Classics, I felt like I was having a lot more fun and passion for what I was doing. But all the antagonism in Biblical Studies has had the unfortunate effect of making my scholarship feel like a chore. I want to fix that, because it’s not how I want my career to feel throughout the coming decades.

Since I am doing a lot of internal reflection right now, I want to let my readers know that my blog posts will probably be sporadic over the next several months. I don’t want to feel like I am obligated to write here. I should do so out of passion and interest. For this reason, if you are a patron on my Patreon account, feel free to unsubscribe, since this blog will be less active. I’m going to keep the account open, should I ever decide to start posting more again, and also for people who simply want to be patrons of my academic work outside the blog.

In terms of upcoming material, I have a guest article that I will be posting soon, written by Kris Komarnitsky (author of Doubting Jesus’ Resurrection: What Happened in the Black Box?). I may also post about some of the stuff that takes place at the Society of Biblical Literature this month in Denver. Other than that, we’ll just see how I’m doing.

I hope that this announcement doesn’t come as a disappointment to certain readers. I have to take care of myself and make sure that I am happy with my work. As such, I’ll be utilizing my leave of absence to deeply consider the future direction I want to take in academia. Hopefully what I’ve written makes sense, and apologies if it seemed like a long confessional (haha).

Take care,

Matthew Ferguson

Posted in Announcements | 8 Comments

Contributing a Chapter to a New John Loftus Volume on Miracles

August has been a rough month, so I’m sorry that I haven’t been more active on the blog. But, I do have an announcement to make about a chapter that I will be contributing to a new volume, edited by John Loftus, on the subject of apologetics and miracles.

My chapter will be a critical review of Christian scholar Craig Keener’s Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts. I started reviewing Keener’s volumes back in December of 2015, but for various reasons I’ve been delayed in continuing my series of essays on the subject. Loftus’ new volume, therefore, provides a great opportunity for me to wrap up my critique.

I’m going to be working with Ed Babinski on the review, and right now it’s looking like we will each write one chapter in a two-part section. Babinski helped me during my earlier review, by critiquing Keener’s analysis of faith healer Johann Blumhardt, so I’m happy to be working with him again. Evan Fales will also be writing a chapter for the volume, and while I believe it won’t be focused on Keener, Fales and I have corresponded a lot over the years about the topic of probability and miracles.

This should be a nice opportunity, so I’m very grateful that Loftus invited me to contribute a chapter!

-Matthew Ferguson

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Did the Author of Matthew Intend to Imply that the Disciple Matthew Was the Brother of James son of Alphaeus?

In doing research on the Gospel of Matthew the other day, I noticed a peculiarity in the Matthew’s redaction of the Gospel of Mark. The process started when I was looking into the name change between “Levi” son of Alphaeus (Mk. 2:13-17) and “Matthew” (Mt. 9:9-13) between the two gospels. The question I was searching for was: “What would motivate the author of Matthew to identify the role of Levi with the disciple Matthew?”

“Matthew” is first mentioned in Mark among the list of twelve disciples in 3:16-19. There, no indication is given that this individual is the same “Levi” mentioned in Mk. 2:13-17. This is a curious omission, since the author of Mark specifies elsewhere when the same individual was known by two names. In the same list of disciples, he clarifies that “Simon” was also known as “Peter” at 3:16 (which is a point also reinforced at 14:37). The former of these identifications help to bridge the reader between the Simon who first appears in 1:16, and the character Peter who first appears solely by that name in Mk. 5:37. I call this a bridge, because the names “Simon” and “Peter” switch, right after the two figures are connected in the list of the twelve at 3:16-19.

But no such identification is provided in Mark to connect “Levi” with “Matthew.” So where did the Gospel of Matthew get the idea to connect the two? To answer this, I think there are a few major clues:

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Authorial Third Person Narration–in Thucydides, Josephus, Xenophon, and Caesar–Versus the Gospel of Matthew

One of the issues that pops up frequently, when discussing the authorial anonymity of the Gospel of Matthew, is how a number of Classical authors refer to themselves in the third person, when narrating historical events in which they themselves had taken part. This point is raised, due to the fact that the disciple Matthew is mentioned in the gospel attributed to him (Mt. 9:9-13), but is only described in the third person, rather than identifying himself in the first person as the author of the text.

It is claimed that this omission should not count against the traditional authorial attribution of Matthew, since authors like Thucydides, Josephus, Xenophon, and Julius Caesar likewise describe themselves in the third person within their own narratives, without switching to the first person when they appear. Some additional nuance needs to be incorporated to address this point, however, since the authorial use of the third person in these Classical authors differs in a number of ways from how the disciple Matthew plays a role in the Gospel of Matthew.

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Presenting at the Society for Classical Studies 2019 Annual Meeting in San Diego, CA

I have some good news to announce, along with an update on my plans for the next nine months. The good news is that I have just had a paper accepted to the 2019 Annual Meeting of the Society for Classical Studies, which will take place on January 3rd-6th in San Diego. The national SCS is generally considered the most prestigious conference for the field of Classics in North America. This is especially great news, since as I previously announced, I have also been accepted to present at this year’s Society of Biblical Literature meeting, which is the most prestigious national conference in Biblical Studies. Both conferences will be an opportunity to share my ideas and network with top scholars in their field!

My paper’s title is “A Polytheist or Christian Journey in Alexander’s Letter to Olympias?,” and is part of the session “Literature of Empire.” The topic relates to my recently published peer-reviewed article with PLLS, which actually started out as a blog essay that I wrote on Κέλσος. Below is the abstract:

This paper analyzes variant readings of Alexander’s Letter to Olympias—an epistolary narrative affixed to the end of book II of the Alexander Romance (2.23-41)—across the Romance’s different recensions, in order to trace a redactional trajectory in which polytheistic details are removed from the Letter while new Christian elements are included. The Letter relates a journey Alexander took to find the end of the world, during which he describes otherworldly creatures, exotic geographical locations, and even a near approach to the afterlife. Since the Alexander Romance functioned as an ‘open text’ (Konstan), which went through multiple stages of composition, the provenance of the Letter in its earliest form is called into question when it appears differently across recensions, particularly when the differences that arise appear to be religious in character.

The Armenian recension includes the detail of Alexander sacrificing to local deities at the end of his journey (2.40), which is notably missing from recension β. In turn, β includes an episode that features a dead fish returning to life when one of Alexander’s cooks washes it in a spring (2.39, 41). The episode with the resurrecting fish is notably absent from the Armenian (Cook), and has been interpreted by Tesei to serve as an allegory for Christian baptism. Whereas the Armenian (c. 5th century CE) appears to offer a polytheistic reading of the Letter (Millet 108), and β (c. 300-550 CE) a Christian reading, scholars dispute which version preceded the other (Stoneman).

The Letter to Olympias is missing from recension α, which is regarded as the earliest version of the Alexander Romance proper. Although the Armenian recension is a translation of α, Jouanno (14; 36 n.17) is inclined to see the chapters with the Letter as dependent upon β, on the grounds that a number of passages in the Armenian (e.g., 2.20 and 3.3) appear to borrow from β. Even granting the Armenian’s familiarity with β, however, it does not necessarily follow that β represents the earliest version of the Letter. Merkelbach (64) argues that the absence of the Letter from recension α should not fix a terminus a quo for its material, since the opening chapter (2.23) seems to belong to source material used elsewhere in the recension; instead, Merkelbach proposes that the Letter was purposefully omitted from α due to the fabulous nature of its content. Granting this assumption, it is possible that the Armenian is following an earlier version of the Letter, which precedes the surviving recensions.

Notably, recension α includes mention of Alexander sacrificing to local deities at the end of book II (2.22), which is a detail missing from the same section of β. If the Armenian truly depends upon β for the Letter, therefore, it has likely added this detail from the main narrative of α to the borrowed chapters of the Letter from β. Alternatively, if the Letter precedes α, then the mention of the sacrifices in chapter 2.22 could represent a vestigial trace of the original ending of the Letter, which survives in its earliest form in the Armenian.

Depending on which version of the Letter to Olympias is granted priority, a different redactional trajectory is implied for its religious character. If the Armenian reflects the earlier version of the Letter, then β has likely redacted a common source, in order to remove polytheistic elements such as the sacrifices and to include Christian elements such as the resurrecting fish. Alternatively, if the Armenian depends upon β, a theory must be presented for why a late antique editor would wish to subtract the Christian symbolism, while adding the sacrifices to the end of the Letter. This paper argues that the former theory is more probable, particularly since Christianizing the Letter would better suit late antique audiences than redacting the narrative in the direction of polytheism. Alexander himself would likewise be Christianized, better suiting the imitatio Alexandri of a post-Constantinian Roman Empire (Spencer, Amitay).

With that said, I have an update to give on my status for the months of July 2018 through March 2019. As I mentioned earlier, I had to get a medical leave of absence during Spring quarter of the last academic year, due to some chronic health issues that I have been facing. To best get ahold of them, and to recover from the stress of thirteen years of college at this point (I started as an undergrad in 2005), I have decided to take an extended leave of absence during Fall and Winter quarter next year.

Having some time off from school will help me sort out a number of priorities that I have been dealing with, including some much needed free time for socializing and taking part in activities outside of work. I really got burned out by the last few years from a lot of academic stress. Although I will be around, it’s important for me not to spend all of this time on the blog. I still plan to continue writing new posts and answering comments, but I need to really make use of my extra time to also develop in other ways personally, particularly so that I can work to lay a good foundation for life in my 30’s.

I thought earlier about asking readers to subscribe to my Patreon profile, when they post comments asking me to respond on lengthy issues. I’ve decided against it in hindsight, however. I was stressed out at the time, and feeling rather overwhelmed by some comment threads. Responding to certain comments for free can be time consuming, but I also don’t want to limit discussion on the blog. As such, as long as there is an understanding that I may not be able to get back right away, I will simply wait on some comments until I have time to address them. For some people who post questions frequently, I may ask them to subscribe, but not when there is only a moderate amount of discussion.

One thing that I don’t like to happen is where I get so bogged down in answering people that I can’t focus on original writing for new issues, and spend most of time responding to others. I need to find a stable balance between not only posting new content on the blog, but also doing academic writing and working on my dissertation. It’s especially not healthy for me when I feel side-tracked and distracted, whenever a comment demanding lengthy attention pops up, and I can’t easily budget it in with my schedule. So, responding to queries will need to be something that I keep in moderation.

Other than that, my health is gradually getting better. I’m still not sleeping well (I was up until 4am last night), but I’m starting to get enough rest to be more functional. I really want to pursue some other activities these nine months, such as creative writing, exercising, and developing new hobbies. Those aspects of life are important for not getting over-burdened by work and being a more rounded individual. This will be my last chance for a break like this, before I graduate and go on the job market. I need to use the time well.

I hope that everyone has a nice 4th of July holiday and that your summer has been treating you well. Onward to new things ahead!

-Matthew Ferguson

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Readers’ Mailbag: Should Legendary Development Have Occurred More Rapidly for Alexander the Great than Jesus?

To help boost new content on the blog, when a good question from a reader comes along, I am going to occasionally write a new post about it, which will include both the question and my response to it. Bart Ehrman does the same thing and calls it his “Readers’ Mailbag.” I figure that it would be great to start doing this on Κέλσος.

(Note: What questions I choose to write about is purely at my discretion, so please do not solicit me to post about your question.)

Recently in response to my blog essay “Are the Gospels Ancient Biographies?: The Spectrum of Ancient Βίοι”–in which I discuss how the NT Gospels resemble the more novelistic and fabulous biographies from antiquity, such as the Alexander Romance (in contrast to more historiographical and mundane ancient biographies, such as those of Plutarch, for example)–a reader asked this question:

Thanks for this article, it’s a great read and most enjoyable. Just one thing, I am not entirely persuaded about the growth of popular biographies, at least in terms of comparing their rapid emergence with the gospels. Someone, like Alexander for example, was a widely known character, who acted out it his life on a grand stage. The rapid embellishments on such a well know character are understandable. But Jesus life was quite different, he spent his life in a back water, an unknown figure to the majority of people, and even afterwards, the same was true for a very long time. So, I think the arguments against fabulisation and extraordinary embellishments (in the gospels) have a point, because of the time scale involved. This is not to suggest that there aren’t any, and as time went on, (as the none canonical gospels show), there was a definite movement in this direction; but I am not sure that it is a good argument for implying that the gospels must be full of the fanciful .

I’d be interested to hear your response.

To provide some further context, I have compared the pace of legendary development between Alexander the Great and Jesus in this previous essay, as well as this one. Here is my response to the reader’s question:

I am actually going to turn your intuition on its head. Let’s stop and think about what it would take to turn Alexander into a fabulated hero. The historical Alexander had already accomplished many extraordinary deeds during his lifetime. He had expanded the small countries of Macedonia and Greece into conquering most of the known world. He had traveled as far as India and deep into Central Asia. He had vanquished great kings and generals. He had founded many cities and left behind a great empire (even if it fractured). And he had done all of this by his early-30’s.

What sort of embellishments needed to be fabricated about Alexander, in order to make his story more glorious? Really, not too many. Sure, you could add stuff about him meeting legendary Amazon warriors (like Achilles) during his military expeditions. You could spread rumors about his mother being impregnated by a god (like Hercules). And you could speak of journeys to the end of the world (like Odysseus). But when it’s all said and done, the real Alexander the Great was already a legend in his own right.

Now let’s turn to Jesus. If you wanted to spread stories about Jesus being the Messiah, what kind of Messiah would he make if he was nothing but an obscure, itinerant peasant, who made little impact on the known world during his lifetime? Jesus was never recognized by the vast majority of his contemporary Judeans as their king. He never overthrew the yoke of Roman oppression. He never ushered in any sort of cosmic judgement or transformation while he was alive. Who wants to hear about a Messiah who was little more than a vagabond wandering around giving sermons?

So, if you want to dress Jesus up as a Messiah, you actually have far more work to do. You would need to spread stories about him ascending to heaven (like Elijah). Stories about him walking on water (even more remarkable than Moses merely parting water). Stories about him multiplying even more bread than Elisha had. Stories about him raising the dead and performing nature miracles (like both Elijah and Elisha). And, if Jesus had not ushered in cosmic judgement during his lifetime, then you would need to speak of celestial visions foretelling how he would do so in the future (such as what John of Patmos witnessed).

Finally, since Jesus had suffered an embarrassing execution on the cross, you would need to revise that blemish on his track record, by having him experience an extraordinary reversal of fate. Perhaps, say, by rising from the dead afterward…

So, I actually think that someone like Jesus would have far more fabulation occur in his popular biography. Note, both Alexander and Jesus had their legends take shape around mimetic models. Alexander was modeled on figures such as Hercules, Achilles, and Odysseus. Jesus was modeled on figures such as Moses, Elijah, and Elisha. But Jesus’ story needed far more miracles and wonder-working in it, in order to raise him from an obscure peasant to someone far more remarkable. Alexander didn’t need that. He already was remarkable. It didn’t take as much myth-making to impress people with Alexander’s story. But who wants a King of the Jews and Messiah that does nothing but wander around giving sermons and speaking in parables? You need to add miracles, thunder, and furry to the story, in order to get people to follow Jesus.

A final note is that fabulation also did seem to take place more slowly with Alexander than Jesus. Our earliest versions of the Alexander Romance date to centuries after his death. Scholars such as Richard Stoneman think that they may be based on an earlier archetype, dating to only a couple generations after Alexander’s lifetime, but we can’t be sure. In contrast, we know that none of the Gospels could have been written any later than a century after Jesus’ death.

And I think there are reasons why the Gospels needed to be written sooner. To get Christianity off the ground, you needed to have extraordinary tales about Jesus circulated quite early. Otherwise both Jesus and Christianity would have faded into obscurity. Alexander, in contrast, would have remained quite famous for centuries, with no help from the Alexander Romance being needed to preserve his memory and legend. So, as I said at the beginning, counter-intuition may be the answer to your question.

This is my first stab at doing a “Readers’ Mailbag,” but I think answering this question shaped into a nice post on its own.

-Matthew Ferguson

Posted in Ancient Biography, Ancient Novel, Classics, Historical Jesus, History, Mailbag, Miracles | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 10 Comments

Presenting at the Society of Biblical Literature 2018 Annual Meeting in Denver, CO

If anyone has been wondering about my absence over the last couple months, I had to take medical leave at the end of Spring Quarter, due to a number of health conditions, and I’ve henceforth been taking time to rest from both school and the blog. My situation is gradually improving, though I’m still feeling far from optimal. Today is the first day that I have felt up to writing again.

Right now I just want to post a brief announcement about an important conference that I’ve been accepted to present at. For the 2018 Annual Meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature–which will take place on November 17th-20th in Denver, CO–I have had a paper accepted to the program unit “Ancient Fiction and Early Christian and Jewish Narrative.” I’ve presented at two regional meetings of the SBL before, but this will be my first presentation at the large, national meeting. I’m quite excited!

My paper’s title is “Staging Bíos: A Diegetic and Mimetic Analysis of Speech in the Gospels within the Biographical Tradition.” Below is the abstract:

By analyzing the role of narrator and dialogue in the New Testament Gospels, this paper will compare their mimetic narrative techniques with the fictional tone of biographies like the Life of Aesop, while contrasting the historical tone of biographers like Plutarch and Suetonius, drawing attention to how the two styles of biography achieve characterization. Whereas biographies of a historical tone are more prone to “tell” (diegesis) a man’s character, by interjecting judgements in the author’s own voice, the Gospels “show” (mimesis) their central character, by staging Jesus in dialogue.

When distinguishing the Gospels from the writings of ancient historiography, Auerbach (2003: 46) notes their “numerous face-to-face dialogues” as a point of contrast to how “direct discourse is restricted in the antique historians to great continuous speeches.” The use of dialogue in ancient historiography was rare, with a historian like Thucydides including it only twice in his entire narrative (3.113; 5.84-116). The latter instance of the Melian Dialogue is such an exception to Thucydides’ narratological technique that Dionysius of Halicarnassus in On the Language of Thucydides (37) emphasizes how Thucydides begins by summarizing the exchange in reported speech (διηγηµατικóν), but then “dramatizes” (δραματίζει) the narrative through dialogue.

Although the Gospels are shorter and focused more on the life of a single individual than the broader scope of historians like Thucydides, scholars such as Burridge (2004) have identified the Gospels with the genre of ancient biography. Speech patterns in biography are more diverse than in historiography, but the role of dialogue generally bears a connection with that of narrator. The biographies of authors like Plutarch and Suetonius are told by a first-person, authorial narrator, who often interjects his own judgements and experiences into the narrative. The narratology of these biographies is not anonymous, whereas the Gospels–particularly Mark and Matthew–are anonymously told by a third-person, external narrator. Other anonymously narrated biographies include the Life of Aesop. The frequent use of dialogue, narrated within historico-geographical settings, is chiefly a characteristic of anonymous biographies, and it pertains to their fictional rather than historical tone.

Rhetorica ad Herennium (1.13) uses the Latin “argumentum”–a word associated with comedy–as the term for “fiction” to distinguish it from “historia.” Theatre is characterized by mimetic narrative techniques, in which dialogue is performed in direct discourse. Fictional writing, such as the ancient novel, resembles theatre in part because of an emphasis on dialogue. Diegetic narrative, however, is more characteristic of history, in which conversation is “reported” more than “shown.” Historiography is likewise characterized by first-person narration (Baum 2008), and the presence of the authorial narrator is central to how historians diegetically report discourse and events. The diegetic narrative techniques of biographers like Plutarch and Suetonius–particularly in their first-person narration and tendency to eschew dialogue–are distinct from the mimetic narrative techniques of the Gospels, which are replete with anonymously narrated dialogues. In this respect, biographers like Plutarch and Suetonius exhibit a greater affinity with historiography, whereas anonymous biographies like the Gospels align more with the novel.

For those who want to learn more about the terms “diegesis” and “mimesis,” which may sound a bit like scholastic jargon above, you can check out my previous blog essay–“Diegesis and Mimesis: A Very Brief Introduction.”

As time moves forward, I will gradually get back into the swing of things. I’m aware that there are some pending comments that I still need to answer, which I will get to as soon as I feel able. I’ll likely answer some comments sooner than others, depending on the time commitment, so don’t be alarmed if I don’t get to yours right away. They are all on my mind and will each be addressed in due course.

To better days ahead,

Matthew Ferguson

Posted in Academic Conferences, Announcements | Tagged | 3 Comments